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Perfect service, but where's the invisible manager?

Published 2 July 2006
News Review
676th article

Michael with the staff, but not the manager, at Villa Serbelloni (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

There's no question, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, a delightfully unspoilt town on Lake Como, is absolutely superb.

The general manager, Giuseppe Spinelli, is odd. No, I'll increase that: he's bizarre. There was no sign of him when I arrived. There was no sign of him at dinner. There was no sign of him the next day. There was nothing from him in the room, like flowers and a little note of welcome. I know I'm spoilt, but I'm used to that sort of thing.

After dinner on the second night Geraldine and I were walking through the lounge towards the grand staircase when I saw a small, immaculate man, who looked as if he'd taken three hours getting dressed. He stood staring into the lounge.

As we approached he said, "Good evening." Not, "I'm the manager, I hope all is well." Just, "Good evening." I sensed he was the missing manager.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Giuseppe Spinelli," he answered. Still no greeting.

"You've been away," I suggested.

"No, you've been away," said Spinelli. This was Harold Pinter dialogue.

"It's a lovely hotel," I said. "Very good indeed," and we walked on.

Spinelli had totally ignored Geraldine. He never even said, "Good evening, madame." Very rude.

The many great hotel managers I know - Dr Rusconi at the Cipriani Venice, Maurizio Saccani at the Splendido Portofino, Jean-Claude Delion at La Reserve de Beaulieu - they walk round greeting guests. They don't just stare into space and say, "Good evening" after you've been there two days.

Charm certainly isn't his strong card, but Giuseppe's doing something right, because the hotel is both beautiful and beautifully run. It's a grand villa with painted ceilings, opened in 1872, built earlier.

The staff are exemplary. The restaurant manager, 29-year-old Francesco Sagliocco, knows how to greet guests even if his manager doesn't. The service is perfection.

Having worked through the dinner until late, Francesco is there at breakfast, checking the scrambled eggs in the tureen are fresh; cleaning it with a napkin if he sees a spot of dirt; arranging things on the buffet if anything is even slightly out of order. I cannot praise him highly enough.

The head sommelier, who shares breakfast duty, Alberti Antonino, is of the old school. Discreet and excellent.

The food is extraordinarily good. You eat dinner serenaded by a lovely string quartet. There's a view of the lake and the pre-Alpine mountains beyond. As darkness falls lights twinkle in the little village of Cadenabbia opposite. It's one of the great sights of the world.

On my first visit our table was in the best position but was smaller than the tables either side. I considered swapping them over myself. Instead I said to Francesco, "Tomorrow night that table will be here for me, and this smaller table can go." It happened.

I had steamed asparagus, cream, poached egg and truffle, then wild duck cooked two ways with plums, filled with foie gras and spinach leaves, then an excellent cheesecake.

The downstairs restaurant, which is strangely by the pool and with plastic chairs, has a Michelin star. The brilliant chef, Ettore Bocchia, produced historic food.

Lovely prawns from San Remo, mashed cod, special fish from Lake Como and a beyond-belief dessert of ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. Great smoky billows of dry ice poured from the bowl as Francesco stirred it. You expected a rock concert to break through.

Everything - the veal, the ravioli, the vanilla souffle - was great. I cannot recommend this hotel enough. In spite of the surly manager.

The chief concierge, Luciano Collina, wobbled a bit at first, but rallied. He faxed me in London that I should pay for the two limousines from Milan, one for Geraldine, one for me, with cash - given to him. Don't ask why we weren't in the same car, I can't be bothered to explain.

On the way from Milan I phoned Luciano. "Why do I have to pay you €500 in cash?" I asked. "Hotels normally put the limo service on the bill."

"Have you got a personal cheque?" asked Luciano.

"No," I said.

"Traveller's cheques?" asked Luciano.

"Just put it on the bill like everyone else does," I replied somewhat testily. The man came with my rental car. "Send him up," I said to Luciano.

"He can't come to your room," responded Luciano.

"Why not?" I asked. "They do at all the other hotels."

"It's most unusual," said Luciano.

"Not in my world," I stated.

After he realised I wasn't a tourist who fell off the turnip truck Luciano was fine.

The Villa Serbelloni is extraordinary. Go there. If you see the manager, let me know!

Winner's letters

Having checked out last week's photo of you and Paola I have to say she's a hottie! How on earth did you convince her to be seen with you?
Michael Kalman, Vancouver

So your pork at the Black Horse (Winner's Dinners, last week) didn't taste of much. I'm not surprised. These days pork doesn't taste like anything except compressed cardboard. It's all the hormones they feed them with. But maybe the pigs have a better love life!
Geoff Taylor Pouzols-Minervois, France

My wife and I have each had a Saab Convertible for years. As with your Saab (Winner's Dinners, last week) on both our cars the rear passenger lights fall out regularly. It's certainly a known fault in this household!
Mike Johnson, Wiltshire

At the Black Boys Inn, Henley-on-Thames, I couldn't find any vegetarian main courses. After a long chat with the senior waiter about what we could and could not have, he informed us he'd given up the will to live but his chef had more patience. The asparagus and truffle risotto then provided was to die for. The dismissive waiter should try some before he gives up on life.
Klaus Schmidsdorf Buckinghamshire

Michael Winner reserved a "quiet room" for me at the Cadogan hotel in Chelsea. In the Lillie Langtry room I heard a mechanical noise that prevented me sleeping. The night manager said my room was next to the hotel generator although later the general manager denied this. I was switched to another room. That had "whooshes" from the air conditioning which wasn't even on, and some sort of fumes came out. The night manager said that was a known problem. He offered me a third room. I fled.
Paola Lombard, Hitchin

We celebrated my wife's birthday at the Waterside Inn, Bray. Every element of this visit from the valet parking, the reception, the table, the food, the wine, the service, the chat with M Roux, the birthday greeting from a member of the royal family, was absolutely faultless. But there was no "wow" factor. My own birthday was celebrated a little further up the M4 at a well-known cafe. That had "wow" by the bucketful. Odd, but I don't know why.
Peter Jones, Oxfordshire